It began as a spam email from a fake Martin Shkreli. It ended with happy hour drinks at Guy Fieri’s Times Square restaurant with the real Martin Shkreli.
Early morning Friday, 450-plus media members from outlets like Gawker, VICE, Buzzfeed, The New Yorker, CNN and, yes, Complex, were CC’d on the same mass email from someone purporting to be infamous price-gouging, Twitter-slandering, Wu-Tang album-hoarding pharma executive/internet villain Martin Shkreli. It wasn’t, but once someone on the email chain informed the real Shkreli of its existence, it wasn’t long before the real deal was hitting Reply-All and proclaiming things like, “There is not a creative bone in the collective skeleton of anyone CCed here except for me.”
The chain spiraled out of control. There were the “please take me off this email” emails, the “I’m clearly hilarious so all of you will surely appreciate this large GIF” emails, the “I’m a freelancer please give me work” emails and, peppered throughout, emails from the most hated pharmaceutical executive on the planet making sure certain journalists knew that they were overweight. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
But news is news, and once “Martin Shkreli” became a nationally trending topic and the first of the posts about the email chain began to hit the internet, it was clear that there was an opportunity for something here. So, piggybacking on a tongue-in-cheek suggestion from a D.C.-based person on the chain for some of us to meet up at Guy Fieri’s restaurant, I decided to shoot my shot:
*taps mic* Trust the Process.
To our surprise, minutes after posting our desire to wade through crowds of Midwestern tourists in 90 degree heat to drink at a restaurant started by a guy who wears flame-embroidered bowling shirts, one of the most reviled men in America (not named Donald Trump), a man reportedly worth $50 million who was indicted by the FBI on securities fraud charges in December and again in May, confirmed his attendance.
I think you’re getting at the American problem.
Walking through mid-August Times Square hell on our way to Guy Fieri’s gastro version of hell, my Complex colleague Sara David and I bet one another on whether or not Shkreli would actually show. And, when we arrived at the sleepy bar at Guy’s on 44th and found ourselves as the only non-tourists, I thought for sure I’d won that bet. Then we noticed Shkreli, perched on a barstool, sipping an IPA, Periscoping himself waiting for the “liberal media trash bag journalist happy hour” to begin.
He actually showed up. Martin Shkreli, a man plenty of New Yorkers would happily watch get slowly mauled by a grizzly a la DiCaprio in The Revenant, was sitting at the bar in Guy Fieri’s nightmare wearing an unassuming black tee and his signature God-I-Wanna-Bash-Your-Face smirk. Welcome to Flavortown.
As we waited for a mass of media people who would never show, our hour-plus conversation with the “pharma bro” spanned subjects ranging from his feelings on the current presidential candidates, Harambe, his upcoming rap album, FDA regulations, economic inequality, LGBT trolling, his family, eSports, prescription prices, wanting to be a WWE manager, and how he legitimately aspires to become half-gorilla.
Much like the media critics who bashed him in the email chain and on Twitter but were absent for the IRL meet-up, Shkreli’s real-life personality was more subdued than the character he plays on the internet. Of the small handful of journalists in attendance (we were joined by Mashable and Adweek), not one of us were told we were shit, or called soon-to-be welfare recipients, or casually smacked for “even walking thru [his] way.” In a totally off-brand move, Shkreli generally treated everyone with patience and (at least surface-level) respect. There was the shit-eating grin, sure. And there was the chance Martin Shkreli was masking his contempt the entire time, burying the desire to pick on someone he deemed lesser-than for the live video feeds. Either way, we didn’t get the “you’re all libtards lolol” Shkreli that lives on Twitter.
My parents and my brothers and sisters are normal people. They know that I’m not.
His motives and thoughts were more difficult to notice than his use of evasion. When asked about his favorite rappers, he spoke at length about who he likes and doesn’t like, knowing fun conversations about rap taste are a far cry from more uncomfortable subjects like ethics in business.
“There’s very few rappers I fuck with,” he said. “I always have love for Young Jeezy. Jeezy’s one of those guys that...you simply wouldn’t want to cross him. You don’t get anything over him. I like rappers like that: dark alley, he’s not a man you want to come across. I just hate fake rappers. You know who I hate that everyone loves? Kendrick Lamar. It’s just...his voice is annoying.”
When asked about the pharmaceutical pricing and why drugs cost so much, Shkreli admitted that what happened at his company Turing Pharmaceuticals—the price of Daraprim skyrocketing from $13.50 to $750 a pill, and the public backlash that followed—was an “embarrassing situation from the pricing perspective.” He went on to blame some of his industry’s problems on age: “There’s no Mark Zuckerbergs of drugs. The average drug CEO is 55-60. The average tech CEO is not.”
This led into perhaps Martin Shkreli’s most human moment, a story about being forced by the FDA to test on (and destroy) animals for 28 days after already completing a seven-day test. “I said, ‘What is the scientific difference between seven days and 28 days? Why do you think that a toxicity will emerge in those 21 days that didn’t emerge in seven days?’ And [the FDA] goes, ‘Because we said so.’ So there’s three dying kids in North Dakota that are not going to get this drug in the next six months because I gotta restart these experiments?’ And they’re like, ‘Yeah, exactly.’”
He seemed genuinely upset that these things happen, and whether you believe that’s because of lost revenue for not getting to market faster or for the dying kids depends on how cynical you are. But just as we began to break the ice on pharmaceuticals, one of the other media people who showed up to Guy’s popped a question on Harambe.
Shkreli compared the gorilla to Caliban, an antagonist in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. “Caliban is Shakespeare’s voice, sort of like pseudo-human, proto-human, not fully developed but just as emotional [as a human],” he explained. “So Harambe still has all the feeling a human has—maybe more—but can’t articulate it. Caliban’s feelings are some of the most poignant and deeply felt vibes in literature. That’s maybe why Harambe is so popular, because we feel this entrapment. This poor monkey, this poor gorilla, that is 99.9 percent human, is still decided in one shot to be dealt death because he’s missing that .1 percent.”
The arrival of Martin Shkreli’s Dragon Chili Cheese Fries appetizer (which he would never touch) seemed like a decent time to pivot the conversation once again. When presented with questions about income inequality in America and asked why more rich people like him don’t step forward and act, he was once again evasive. Pressed if he thinks there’s a responsibility for better-off people to highlight the numerous, less glamorous paths to wealth, he Marge-slides out of the answer by removing himself as part of the problem.
“I think you’re getting at the American problem,” Shkreli said. “Which is that—I love this rock singer Conor Oberst who has a band Bright Eyes—and he calls it the rationing of luck.” He added that the path to success is “a bit of a lotto” and “if you put your name in the hat, you’d be surprised how good those odds are. And if you don’t put your name in the hat?” He shrugs.
He lists Bill Gates and Warren Buffett as wealthy men with privileged upbringings who would only offer the solution of “work hard, you’ll be fine,” and he’s probably correct that “work hard, you’ll be fine” isn’t the reality of today’s America. But in his very next breath, after acknowledging that there are kids who don’t know what a stock is let alone have any interest in Wall Street, Shkreli dives into his personal tale of American triumph: “I learned what a stock was through the New York Post. The New York Post starts at the back page with the sports. The back page is like the front page. One or two more pages is the stock tables. And if you like numbers you’re like, ‘Oh, Knicks are at 35-27 and Microsoft’s at $26.’”
This, to me, is one of the defining characteristics of Martin Shkreli: A clear lack of sympathy for those who, as he sees it, don’t take advantage of what America affords them. It’s the same characteristic that makes some of your conservative Facebook friends insufferable, only instead of the “Devil’s Advocate” front being fueled by misconceptions about underlying topics of race, class, gender, and politics, Shkreli simply ignores these issues. He understands that some of those kids who don’t know what a stock is will become adults who don’t know what a stock is, and seems to understand that such ignorance is bad for our country long-term. Yet he remains “the kind of person who doesn’t think there’s any problem with America. When Donald Trump says he wants to make America great again, I wanna slap the taste out of his mouth. A kid from Brooklyn can read the stock tables and end up one of the richest people. Like, how is that not great? And if some other kid doesn’t wanna read the stock tables, to me that’s almost on him. If you’re really hungry, and you really want it….”
In two minutes, Shkreli went from mocking Bill Gates and Warren Buffett for a supposed “work hard, you’ll make it” attitude to mirroring that sentiment with “If you’re really hungry, and you really want it….” Regardless of Shkreli’s modest upbringing, it’s clear his sense of individuality supersedes any notion of responsibility.
“It’s a bit of a lotto, and some people don’t put their name in the hat. My brother has zero desire to be rich. He doesn’t care, he likes to play guitar and that’s it. And that’s fine, that’s beautiful. My parents and my brothers and sisters are normal people. They know that I’m not. And they accept that. It’s not like this thing where they’re like, ‘Gosh, I wish I had the opportunities Martin was given.’ We grew up in the same fucking house! Like he had those opportunities—he didn’t take ‘em! Not everyone’s gonna take ‘em and just be honest about it.
“I understand that on the periphery there’s injustices and there’s difficulties,” he continued. “But in sum and substance—and again, this is the privileged person talking—I believe [America] is okay. I grew up in roaches and rats.”
That’s right: The man whose company once (according to CNN) raised the price of a treatment for cancer and AIDS patients by 5,000 percent overnight just told a rags to riches story.
Shkreli is also recognized online for any number of insensitive comments about LGBT people. When his discomfort with trans issues is combined with his apparent lack of respect for ideas that he doesn't think are rooted in science, you get obvious trolling tweets like this:
But after being called out as a troll for saying “In this world of LGBTQ why can’t I identify as half gorilla?” and going on for several minutes about the likelihood of future trans-species humans, he clarified his thoughts:
“I try to not really take issue with social issues. Science I’ll talk about, but if someone wants to believe they’re a woman in a man’s body even though they have man DNA, it’s a little perplexing. But again, I would never say someone’s crazy or they shouldn’t think that way—I would never judge someone like that. I know a lot of people who are trans. One of my favorite professional eSports players is a former man and now a lesbian. I would never say anything bad about my friends like that. But scientifically, definitely, you can sit up and say, ‘that’s strange.’”
He’s not politically correct, he’s not sensitive to people’s identities, and frankly he’s not the guy you’d want to discuss this topic with in the slightest, but he’s not the kind of person who would vote against someone’s bathroom choice. He’s hands-off socially, and when that’s coupled with his trolling and lack of respect for the correct terminology, he still comes off like a hybrid of the “good guy” and “bad guy” from Patton Oswalt’s Talking For Clapping. Shkreli is insensitive and insulting, but has no interest in forcing his beliefs on other people.
Another media person asks about memes and we notice it’s already past 5 p.m. It feels like a good time to get back to the office. Shkreli mentioned earlier that drinks were on him, so there’s zero effort on our part to reach for our wallets. He can cover it. We shake hands and thank him for his time, and walk out into humid midtown Manhattan to trek back to Complex.
What a day. Thank you, Guy Fieri.